MIDORI & BRITTEN’S VIOLIN CONCERTO
Maison symphonique de Montréal
James Feddeck, conductor
Common to all three works on this program is the disconnect we find between their sources of origin or inspiration and where they were composed. Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales were composed in France to a quintessentially Viennese subject, the waltz; in fact, they intentionally evoke the world of Schubert. Benjamin Britten, one of England’s iconic composers, completed his Violin Concerto right here in French-speaking Quebec (in St. Jovite, to be specific). And while Mendelssohn found inspiration for his Scottish Symphony while touring cloudy Scotland, he composed much of the work in sunny Italy.
Born in Ciboure, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France, March 7, 1875 – Died in Paris, December 28, 1937
Valses nobles et sentimentales
Like several other orchestral works of Ravel, the Valses nobles et sentimentales began life as solo piano music in 1911. The premiere, by Louis Aubert to whom the work was dedicated, took place under highly unusual circumstances. All the works on the program of the Société musicale indépendante were performed anonymously in an effort to encourage listeners (and critics!) to evaluate fairly what they actually heard, rather than casually granting approval to well-known names and ignoring the efforts of obscure or young up-and-coming composers. In other words, the luxury of “labels” or brand-names was denied. As a concert piece, it was first presented in February of 1914 in Paris, led by Pierre Monteux.
Just as Ravel had evoked the world of eighteenth-century France in Le tombeau de Couperin, so did he attempt to conjure up the nineteenth-century Vienna of Schubert in his Valses nobles et sentimentales. Schubert himself had composed a series named (probably by his publisher) Valses nobles, op. 77, and another named Valses sentimentales, op. 50. In Ravel’s words, “The title … shows clearly enough my intention to compose a chain of waltzes in the style of Schubert. In the place of virtuosity … there was a style clearer, brighter, that emphasized the harmonies and brought them into relief.” There are eight waltzes in all, including an introductory number and an Epilogue, mostly played without interruption. Alternately charming, coy, sophisticated, expansive and elegant, Ravel’s interpretation of the waltz can stand beside those of Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss (Der Rosenkavalier), Brahms (Liebeslieder Waltzes), Tchaikovsky (Waltz of the Flowers) and Ravel’s own La valse. The waltzes are unified by an Epilogue containing allusions to separate numbers in a masterly summary.
Born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, November 22, 1913 – Died in Aldeburgh, December 4, 1976
Benjamin Britten is universally recognized as one of England’s greatest and most representative composers, but in the months leading up to the beginning of World War II and for several years thereafter, he felt politically and spiritually alienated from his native land, due generally to his pacifist outlook and to the various appeasement policies into which his government had entered with Germany and Italy. Following the lead of fellow artists W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, he sailed to America in May of 1939. In his luggage was the score of the still incomplete Violin Concerto, which he had begun the previous November. Britten finished the concerto during a sojourn in Quebec in September, 1939. The Violin Concerto was the first of several major works Britten either wrote or completed in the New World. The first performance was given by the Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa (a longtime friend of the composer) with the New York Philharmonic on March 28, 1940, conducted by John Barbirolli. It was warmly received and Britten himself believed that “so far it is without question my best piece.”
Violinists recognize Britten’s concerto as one of the most fearsomely difficult in the repertory. It is often compared with Berg’s concerto for its elegiac character and with Walton’s for its expansive lyricism, qualities obvious from the soloist’s initial entry. The first movement is laid out in traditional sonata form, with the soloist introducing both main themes. At the moment of recapitulation, the roles are reversed, with the orchestral strings now singing the sweetly nostalgic theme and the soloist playing the accompaniment figure introduced by timpani in the opening bars. The use of timpani to open a violin concerto with a rhythmic figure that will pervade the entire first movement recalls the analogous concerto by Beethoven.
The second movement, which follows without pause, is something of a danse macabre, full of flying leaps, glissandos (slides) and other acrobatic feats. A contrasting lyrical episode interrupts the proceedings.
The cadenza, which serves as a link between the second and third movements, begins in a lyrical vein but devotes most of its span to the rhythmic figure introduced by timpani back in the concerto’s opening moments. Solemn trombones enter with the scale-like motif that is to run continuously throughout the final movement, a passacaglia. (The passacaglia may be defined as a method of composition in which a set of variations is constructed over a repeating bass line or chord progression, in Britten’s concerto presented by the trombones.) After four overlapping statements of this motif (trombones – strings – trumpet – woodwinds) the solo violin begins the first of nine variations over the motif played ppp tremolo in the cellos. Each variation that follows can be recognized by its own character, tempo, dynamic level and instrumentation. The concerto ends with a passage marked Lento e solenne ̶ resigned, glowing and poignant, a fitting testimonial to Britten’s somber and sobering thoughts about the war that raged while he composed.
Born in Hamburg, February 3, 1809 – Died in Leipzig, November 4, 1847
During July and August of 1829, the twenty-year-old Mendelssohn enjoyed himself touring Scotland. As he was an inveterate letter writer, we know in considerable detail his reactions, mostly favorable, to the Highland country, its weather, and its people with their “long, red beards, tartan plaids, bonnets and feathers, naked knees, and their bagpipes in their hands.” One day in Edinburgh he came upon the picturesque ruins of the Palace of Holyrood, in which Mary, Queen of Scots, had once lived. On July 30, the impressionable young tourist wrote home that this had inspired the beginnings of his Scottish Symphony. But nothing more came of it until twelve years later, by which time Mendelssohn had already been to Italy and had written his Italian Symphony. In 1831, he wrote from Italy that he could “not find his way back into the Scottish fog mood,” a quite understandable condition given Italy’s sunny climes. The Scottish Symphony was eventually completed in January of 1842, making it Mendelssohn’s last major orchestral work. Hence, though called “no. 3,” it is really the fifth of his five mature symphonies.
The degree of “Scottishness” in this symphony is dependent on the individual listener’s susceptibility to programmatic suggestion and on hindsight. The somber, melancholic opening is certainly at least suggestive of the brooding, misty Scottish land; the ebullient clarinet theme of the Scherzo may be based on a Scottish folk air, since the scale pattern corresponds to that of the country’s folk music; the leaping, vigorous, dance-like main theme of the finale is thought by some to be a musical representation of the gathering of the clans.
None of this is conclusive, of course. But we do know that Mendelssohn had little sympathy with native folk idioms, and had he not spoken of it as his “Scottish” symphony, probably no one would have guessed as much. Scottish or not though, this work is fully representative of Mendelssohn at his best, and we can thoroughly enjoy this classically-chiseled symphony for its gentle charms, melodiousness and imaginative ideas.
© Robert Markow
Internationally renowned and versatile British conductor Jeffrey Tate’s commitment to music was preceded by a doctoral degree in medicine from Cambridge University. He began as a staff member of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and subsequent experience as Assistant to Pierre Boulez in Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Bayreuth Festival generated his own highly regarded interpretation in Cologne and Paris (with the Orchestre national de France). The Paris production was taken over by the State Opera of South Australia, Adelaide, making history as the first complete Ring performance in Australia. In addition to Wagner, Mozart’s works are another focus of Tate’s diverse repertoire.
After these successes, Mr. Tate quickly rose to international prominence as an opera and concert conductor in Paris, Milan, Venice, Vienna, London, Geneva, as well as the United States and Australia.
His comprehensive discography includes the operas Arabella, Hänsel and Gretel, Les contes d’Hoffmann, and Lulu, as well as Mozart’s piano concertos with Mitsuko Uchida, the complete symphonies of Mozart with the English Chamber Orchestra, Elgar’s greatest orchestral works with the London Symphony, and the complete A Midsummer Night’s Dream of Mendelssohn with the Rotterdam Philharmonic.
In 2001, 2002, and 2010 Maestro Tate was awarded the prestigious Franco Abbiati Prize for his work with the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, at the Teatro San Carlo in Napoli, and for his Götterdämmerung at La Fenice in Venice. He was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, and Commander of the British Empire. In 2016, he received the coveted Una Vita nella Musica award in Venice. The same year, Jeffrey Tate received the knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II for his services to British music overseas.
From the outset of the 2009/2010 season, Jeffrey Tate has devoted most of his time to his appointment as Principal Conductor of the Hamburg Symphony. In 2015, he was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Adelaide Symphony.
Midori is renowned worldwide as one of the most legendary violinists of her generation. In addition to performing at the highest level internationally, the United Nations and World Economic Forum have recognized her exceptional commitment to education and community throughout the USA, Europe, Asia, and the Developing World. Her sustained commitment to the violin repertoire of the future has led to the creation many new recital works and concertos.
Recently, Midori has added several recordings to her extensive catalogue, including Bach’s complete Solo Sonatas and Partitas as well as the Violin Concerto DoReMi written for her by Peter Eötvös and performed with the Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France (forthcoming). Her 2014 recording of Hindemith’s Violin Concerto with NDR Symphony Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach won a GRAMMY for Best Classical Compendium.
In 1992 she founded Midori & Friends, a not-for-profit organization bringing music education to underserved New York City schoolchildren. Other initiatives are Music Sharing and Partners in Performance, based respectively in Japan and the U.S.A., dedicated to access for everyone to the arts. Her Orchestra Residences Program furthers her commitment to music outreach and community inclusion. In 2007, she was named a Messenger of Peace by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Midori was born in Osaka, Japan, in 1971 and began violin studies with her mother, Setsu Goto. Zubin Mehta first heard her in 1982 and invited her to make her debut, at 11, with the New York Philharmonic at their traditional New Year’s Eve concert, where she received a standing ovation and immediately embarked on a major career. Today, Midori lives in Los Angeles, where she continues to serve as Distinguished Professor of Violin and Jascha Heifetz Chair at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music.
Midori’s violin is a 1734 Guarnerius del Gesù “ex-Huberman.” She uses three bows: two by Dominique Peccatte, and one by Paul Siefried.
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